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Is There A Better Way To Fight Massive Wildfires?


The Mendocino Complex Fire in California is the largest in the state's history. It broke a record set just eight months ago, and there's no end in sight. Fire officials say they expect it to burn until next month. NPR's Nate Rott joins us from NPR West in California to talk about this trend of larger, more frequent fires and what can be done about them. Hi, Nate.


SHAPIRO: Why are we seeing these records for largest, most intense wildfire just broken year after year?

ROTT: You know, I hate to say the usual suspects because it sounds kind of flip, but it's issues that we've talked about and scientists have known about for years. Climate change is a factor. We've seen a hundred-plus degree temperatures in Northern California this summer. There was the California drought that preceded that. There are more people on the landscape than ever before, and the vast majority of wildfires in this country are started by people. A study last year from the University of Colorado found that 84 percent of all fires in the U.S. are human-caused. And then you have a century of forest management where we prioritized putting out all fires, which led to this buildup of vegetation and fuels that are just ready to burn.

SHAPIRO: And is that management approach being reconsidered now that appears to be causing in part these bigger, more intense fires?

ROTT: Yeah, it is. I mean, for decades, fire managers have toyed with letting more fires burn. But, you know, that's a hard thing to do when you have more and more people living in and around these forested areas, and it's a really hard thing to communicate. I went to a wildfire conference earlier this year with many of the world's most prominent fire ecologist, fire managers. And the message I walked away with is that we as a society really need to change the way we look at fire.

I talked to Malcolm North, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service about this earlier. He lives near Yosemite National Park where the air right now is thick with smoke. And he said there's this perception that we all have thanks to Smokey Bear that we can prevent forest fires, we can stop them. But he says that is not true. Wildfire is part of the landscape in many parts of the country. Here he is.

MALCOLM NORTH: If we make peace with that fact that we're inevitably going to get fire, I think at that point, we can have a - hopefully an informed discussion about how we want that fire to occur because the current situation has made a choice already that we're going to try to put out all these fires. And we end up in a triage situation which is just hemorrhaging money without ever getting out in front of the problem.

ROTT: So the idea there is that we need to be more proactive instead of reactive to wildfires. We need to do more prescribed fires, controlling when and how they happen as best as we can.

SHAPIRO: The interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, wrote an op-ed in USA Today calling for a more proactive approach to preventing wildfires. Is that what he's talking about?

ROTT: You know, yes and no. Zinke and many of his predecessors have talked about the need to do more fuel mitigation to clean up the mess we've made by putting out fires for the last hundred years, you know, by cleaning out some of that built-up vegetation you'll see in a lot of forests. But the way that Zinke wants to do that is by pushing through more logging and thinning in the nation's forests. That's something Republicans have been after for a long time.

And look; in some cases, it could be very beneficial. I did a story about this about a year ago. I talked to fire ecologists who say that thinning would be great in some places. But in others, it wouldn't make a difference. So this is a complicated issue without really one solution.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Nate Rott speaking with us from NPR West. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.